I inhale deeply to savor the freshness of the air and raise my face to the bright sun bathing in an azure sky. I begin to climb the stairs, avoiding the thousands of people watching me. I falter and nearly stumble as my thoughts sink like a stone in water to Julia and what she did: to that cursed day twenty-nine years ago when her actions determined who lived and who died and to the day much later when she ended the curse she’d placed on herself as a result.
Why did she do any of it? Maybe it was because she was the middle child in our family. Psychologists like to say that the middle child acts like an immobile bridge between roles of leadership and childish irresponsibility. Best able to see both sides of an argument, they usually make good diplomats but falter when faced with spontaneous decisions. Like a fish out of water forced to breathe air, Julia gulped in leadership and action against her nature . . . and destroyed herself.
How different the course of events might have been if she hadn’t acted so boldly that spring day twenty-nine years ago. Would I be here, walking up these steps now? Would Simon have survived? Would Julia still have jumped in front of the tube-jet seventeen years ago? Or would we all have died along with our parents that spring day?
The blood-red dawn promised a warm spring day. By mid-morning the smell of Montreal had dissipated and the sun felt like a heat lamp on my face as I stepped outside the farmhouse, scrambling after my older brother and sister. They were both tall and long of stride, wearing functional bows and arrows slung over their warrior-like shoulders, while I trotted behind like their pet dog. I didn’t mind. I was only ten years old and Simon and Julia were my heroes. They took me on forbidden adventures in the forest. Our parents didn’t allow us outside the farm property because of the threat of stray revolutionaries, but Simon and Julia flagrantly disobeyed them. It probably started on a dare that escalated out of hand. It was as much that dare as anything else that ended up saving one life, sacrificing another and damning the third.
We often spent the better part of the day in the forest and fields beyond the farm property. And it was only Simon, who usually made the decision in the first place to stay all day, who had the presence of mind to bring along food, which he seldom shared. During our journey Simon would usually throw a glance back once or twice to make sure I was still keeping up and rebuke my snail’s pace: “Hey dreamer, hurry up or we’ll leave you behind!” Julia would snap at him in my defense: “Claire’s only ten, you idiot! So slow down for the runt!” They would always argue. “Well, you slow down too, then!” he’d shout back. “I slowed down for you already, slug!” she’d rejoin. On it would go as they shoved each other until I caught up to them. They were less than a year apart and I think Julia resented Simon being the eldest and the one who made all the decisions. She wanted to make them but she never did, so she always disagreed with his.
The day started pretty much like any other day. Simon and Julia were arguing as usual by the time we reached the forest. They’d overheard a discussion between Mom and Tante Lise about the revolution. We moved to the country last summer to get away from the fighting in Montreal. Mom and Dad lost their jobs because of the Gaian revolution. The company they worked for, BioGen Technologies, went up in smoke along with the latest flame bombings and Mom got scared that the Gaians would come after the survivors, mainly Dad, who was one of the head honchos there. So we packed up and came here to my Oncle Pierre’s and Tante Lise’s small dairy farm in the Eastern Townships, where the air smelled clean -- well, cleaner than the cities, anyway.
Mom and Dad met at BioGen in Montreal. She was a junior microbiologist in “functional genomics” with unorthodox ideas and he was one of their chief scientists in nano-technology and transgenic research. BioGen was supposed to save the world but then one of Dad’s “creations” got away from them and crashed the world’s wheat crop.
“Tante Lise shouldn’t call Dad Frankenstein,” Julia grumbled. “He isn’t a monster.”
“It’s ‘cause he made monsters, stupid,” Simon snorted. “Frankenstein’s the name of the mad scientist, not the clone monsters he made.”
“He’s not a mad scientist,” she defended. “And they’re not monsters!”
“The Gaians say they are,” Simon remarked, picking his teeth. “They say that BioGen’s just another multi-national company that’s making too much money. They say BioGen’s technology is irresponsible and that stuff Dad did is wrecking our ecosystems like diversity, evolution and stuff.”
“What do the Gaians know, they’re luddites,” Julia snorted with disgust, parroting what our father always said. I knew she didn’t know what a luddite was. “Dad just made a little mistake once. Some DNA escaped and went rogue on them. Part of the risk we have to take in GE crops.”
“Yeah, like widespread famine,” Simon muttered, shaking his head.
Julia frowned with worry. “Tante Lise isn’t a Gaian . . . is she?”
“Dunno.” Simon shrugged and absently raked back his mat of straw-coloured hair with his hands. “She doesn’t like what Dad was doing. Lots of people think it’s wrong. Even Mom.”
“Mom’s just scared they’ll find us,” Julia grumbled. “She’s scared of everything,” Julia murmured more to herself than to Simon, as if trying to convince herself.
As we stepped out of the cool dappled forest into the warm sunshine of a small clearing, Simon announced that we should eat some lunch. I was happy to comply.
“It’s only ten-thirty,” Julia objected.
“Well, I’m hungry. So it’s time to eat.”
“You can’t tell me when to eat,” Julia said tartly. “Pig!”
“That’s because you only brought along some crackers while I made three sandwiches for me! You’re never prepared,” he said smugly. “And now you’re jealous!”
“I’m not jealous,” Julia said haughtily. “I’m just not hungry.”
“Am not!” Her face went pink.
“Are too, dork!” He laughed then promptly sat down on a patch of matted long grass and swung out his backpack. Without waiting for either of us to agree or even join him, Simon fished out a peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich and bolted it down with gluttonous pleasure as I longed in silence. He wasn’t a particularly tidy eater and left a smear of red jam on his chin. I noticed that his cheeks were flushed already from the heat and sweat glistened on his nose and forehead.
Julia stomped around then finally dropped down and threw her arms against her upraised knees, glowering at her older brother. Even if she was hungry she wasn’t going to admit to it now. I was ready to confess my hunger in hopes of receiving a morsel, but Julie glared at me as if she’d read my mind. My shoulders drooped in defeat.
Once Simon finished his first course of lunch, we plunged back into the forest out of the burning sun. The deer flies buzzed furiously around our heads amid wild arm waving and frustrated outcries. Simon led us up a hill toward a large hemlock grove. He scrambled a steep incline to a narrow long ledge that may have once been a path. The forest floor was carpeted with dead needles and tiny fallen cones and dotted with young maple saplings. Like a man who had found gold, Simon bent down and gathered a handful of cones then darted behind a tree. Julia waited for me catch up before she scrambled up then shrieked at the deluge of cones Simon flung at her face. He sniggered as she practically fell backwards on top of me then swore furiously at him, her face red with embarrassment.
“Come on!” Simon said enthusiastically. “Let’s play war!”
Eager to play, Julia ran for cover and gathered her own arsenal of weapons.
“You can’t use your hands!” Simon warned just as Julia was about to throw some cones at him. “You have to make a slingshot using a tree like this.” He squatted over a young sapling and bent its branches into a mutilated mess, fit a cone into his makeshift catapult, pulled the sapling back than let it spring naturally towards Julia. The cone flew past her head, barely missing her. Both participants shrieked with pleasure.
As Julia and Simon collected their cones, I, left out of the game as usual, sat back like a dutiful and appreciative audience to watch their creative entertainment. The warriors shot in earnest, sometimes hitting their opponent with a victorious cry, other times -- most of the time -- missing widely. In the process the poor saplings they used were swiftly demolished and they had to forage for a new catapult. During one of her forages Julia tripped on an exposed root and fell headlong to the ground with a hollow thud. When she didn’t get up right away, Simon jeered, “Hey, clone monster! Get up!”
She jerked to her feet, wiping her head and pushing back her thick mane of chestnut hair and tucking it behind her ears. I noticed a cut on her dirt-smeared forehead. “Don’t call me that, you moron!” she spat out, temper flaring.
“You’re the moron! You never do anything on your own,” he bit out. “That’s ‘cause Dad made you out of spare parts back at the lab!” That line was usually reserved for me and I was used to it. But Julia couldn’t bear the insult.
“You shut up!” she screamed. “I’m tired of your snotty remarks about Dad. You can keep them to yourself--”
“Until he gets us all killed when they come looking for ‘Doctor Frankenstein’!” Simon mocked.
Julia bolted at him, hands lashing out like raptor’s talons. He jerked out of her clawing hands and tackled her. They rolled among the dead leaves, hands swiping and legs kicking. I couldn’t tell who was winning but both were crying.
“Stop it! Stop it!” I pleaded and tried to pry them apart. I finally succeeded but only after receiving a kick in the stomach.
Simon stood up first, nose bleeding and an eye already swollen. “You bitch!” he screamed down at her as she pushed herself off the ground and wiped her dirty tear-stained face. “You crazy bitch! You don’t care about Mom. You’re just like Dad: he should have thought about us before he went and made all those monsters!”
“Go to hell!” she shrieked. “You haven’t a clue what he was doing. He was feeding the hungry of the world!”
“Yeah? Meantime we’re polluting it so much we’re killing everyone we’re feeding!”
“Can’t we do both with the same tool?” I piped up. “Like the plants?”
“What?” They both turned haltingly to me like I was an alien who’d just uttered gibberish.
“Feed the hungry and clean up the pollution,” I said. One day while my brother and sister were in school, my father had pulled me out of school to take me on a tour of the BioGen facility and show me their artificial photosynthesis lab: “How marvelous,” he’d exulted, “if we could copy what chloroplasts do and plug directly into the sun without burning a drop of oil. No more hungry people. No more fossil fuel and no more pollution.”
He’d dropped me off at my mother’s lab and she’d shown me holo-images generated through electron tomography of mitochondria and chloroplasts. While my father had dedicated himself to feeding the starving masses, my mother dreamed of a world where people no longer needed to eat. The mitochondria and chloroplasts shared a common ancestry, she explained to me. They both descended from earlier prokaryotic cells that established themselves as internal symbionts -- endosymbionts, we now call them -- of a larger anaerobic cell. The similarities between these two organelles were uncanny, my mother went on: for instance, they both contained their own DNA and ribosomes; they divided by themselves and used the same enzyme to produce energy in the form of ATP. The only major difference was how they produced ATP. While chloroplasts used chlorophyll to capture the sun’s energy, mitochondria broke down glucose in the food we eat. Inspired by my father’s tools and my mother’s vision, I soared on a dream of people capable of photosynthesis in a Ciamician world.
“Dad told me,” my words rushed out in a torrent, knowing I had seconds before they ignored me again, “about a scientist named Giacomo Ciamician who a hundred years ago dreamed of a world where photosynthesis did everything for us--”
Julia took in a sharp breath and turned back to rail at Simon: “You’re so narrow-minded, just like a Gaian, just like Mom!” She retrieved her bow, scattered arrows and quiver. “Come on, Claire.” Julia took my hand with a last glare at Simon who was brushing off the mess from his shirt and pants. “We’re going home.” Without waiting for me to decide, she led me at a brisk pace back to the farm.
“Do that!” Simon yelled after us and sat down on a rock to sulk. I turned my head for a last glimpse at him as Julia tugged me hard down the hill.
“Shouldn’t we wait for him?” I asked innocently when I lost sight of him.
“He can find his own way home,” she muttered, tugging me harder. “He led us here, didn’t he?”
I staggered over the rough terrain to keep up, secretly praying that Julia knew the way. It wasn’t Simon I was worried about. The sun disappeared behind carbon-coloured clouds. They scudded overhead like prey, chased by a biting wind. It howled and sent the Trembling Aspens thrashing above us. Their lanky poles clanked like bones to the moaning wind as the leaves hissed a mad chorus.
“What if we meet a bear?” I asked, starting to feel unsafe.
“There aren’t any bears in the forest, Claire,” Julia said shaking her head sarcastically at me. “Besides, I have my bow and arrows.” She tapped her quiver and bow smugly. She was right, I thought, pacified by her confidence. She was good with that thing and I was a little surprised that she didn’t remind me of the four rabbits and two coyotes she’d killed while all Simon had managed to do was wound a rabbit with his.
We broke through the perimeter of the dense forest to the farm as rain pelted us like missals, instantly drenching us. As if the stinging rain warned her, Julia gripped my arm to stay me and I saw her eyes harden as she threw swift glances to the open garden gate, the greenhouse whose door was ajar--
I squeaked in surprise as she clamped a hand over my mouth. “Shhh! Hold still!” she hissed, glaring at me under streams of wet hair. Then she let go and I couldn’t stop trembling while she snatched her bow and loaded it with an arrow. As if in response to her move, the front door of the farmhouse creaked open and a large unshaven man with unwashed hair and eyes glinting of malice lumbered out. He carried a loaded sack in one dirty hand and a blood-covered knife in the other. The man spotted us and I hitched my breath, stiff with terror, not daring to blink the rain off my eyelashes. He grinned, baring yellow teeth, and stomped toward us. I scrambled behind Julia and clutched her shorts leg.
Julia glanced from the man’s churlish grin to his knife and raised her bow. He laughed at her. She didn’t know that our parents and relatives lay dead inside. Yet without hesitation she drew the bow back and let the arrow fly. It sunk into his chest and he inhaled sharply, eyes bulging in disbelief. Then he charged us. I cringed and wet my pants. Julia stood like a statue, her arm a blur of reloading, and struck him with two or more arrows before he staggered and fell dead on his face metres from us.
Gruff laughter from the side of the house warned us that there were more men. Julia seized my arm and dove for cover in a small thicket by the cherry tree just as Simon broke through the forest into the clearing. I shivered, cowering in our wet hiding place as several men marched past us toward the dead man. Toward Simon. Simon stood not far from their dead colleague, hair hanging in his eyes and bow in his hand. They made the logical conclusion.
He must have made his own rightful conclusion and his eyes fleetingly strayed, searching hard, beyond the thugs to where we huddled behind them. Did he see us there? I imagined that he did. But before I could see more, Julia shoved my face down into the dirt. What I didn’t see I could only imagine as my heart slammed up my throat: Simon’s and Julia’s eyes locking, their anguished message of agreement. The rest I heard through the hissing rain: a slashing sound, a clipped gasp and a thud. I was choking but didn’t dare struggle. Hot tears stung my eyes. Julia’s firm hand, now shaking, kept me down for an eternity of smelling dirt and rotting vegetation. Of feeling the wet prickle of soil and leaves against my face. Of listening to men’s grunts and shuffling steps wither to a constant sizzle and plopping of rain.
I was young but I knew perfectly well what had just happened: Simon took the hit for us and Julia let him. The first -- and last -- decision they’d made together was one made in complicity.
Julia and I made it out of there, after she confirmed that Simon was dead and found our parents and relatives murdered inside the house. We had a difficult journey but were eventually taken in by a kind family where we rode out the remaining years of war until the Gaians established a new government and peace was reinstated.
I found a calling in micro-biomimicry -- the Gaian’s answer to mindless technology -- at Concordia University in Montreal. Julia never returned to school. She got a job as a waitress and helped me through university. I met André, a med student, and eventually married while Julia wandered like a nomad from one relationship to another. We saw less of one another and I started to think she was avoiding me. When she committed suicide I was shocked. But not surprised.
Had she been running the same thought loop I had? How it might have played if she hadn’t instinctively killed that Gaian.
Had she needlessly killed a man -- albeit a murderer -- and needlessly caused Simon’s death? If we’d run instead would they have chased us or let us go? They were paid assassins, after all, on a mission to ‘take out’ our father. Not child murderers. Maybe Simon would still be with us and Julia wouldn’t have destroyed herself out of irreconcilable loneliness. . . .
Or had she tapped into some divine providence when she let the arrow fly and saved my life the only way it could have been saved . . . at Simon’s expense . . . and consequently her own? . . .
I turn to the audience and spot André and our two children. They blur through my tears. As a scientist I understand that one cannot know the future or one’s destiny; but my heart tells me differently. Like most things for him, my brother’s choice was clearly laid before him. For Julia, as always, it was not so simple. And yet, that spring day she became more than she was and with fluid motions enacted her part in the cruel miracle that brought me here today.
The heaviness in my legs lifts as I make the last steps to the podium in the open-air auditorium that celebrates our clean air. I am finally ready to accept my Nobel Prize. And I know at last what I am going to say:
I’m here today accepting this award for the creation of photosynthetic symbionts in human mitochondria because of my brother and sister. I share this honor with them. If not for their heroism of that day long ago, I would not have survived with the burning motivation and tenacity to pursue a lifelong dream: to serve the human race and the planet with the gift of an alternate and clean source of fuel and food -- a way for humanity to directly harness energy from the sun . . . Julia’s gift.
~ The End ~
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian novelist, scientist and author of short stories. A collection of her short stories "Natural Selection" is due for release with Starfire World Syndicate in 2011. For more about Nina see her website www.ninamunteanu.com.